In the 1970s, “the personal is political” became a key slogan of the feminist movement, an argument that the problems women experienced in their personal lives were a product of broad societal dysfunctions and injustices that could and should be addressed through politics. Today, conservatives still seem to understand this intuitively.
But liberals have largely forgotten it. Or if they haven’t forgotten it in an intellectual sense, they don’t feel it in the same way conservatives do. And you can see the effects at every level of our political lives.
Right now we’re in a period marked by right-wing backlash, which accompanies the election of every Democratic president. The difference today is that the backlash is not just the kind of formless rage that characterized the tea party movement. Instead, it’s being translated into aggressively retrograde laws meant to roll back decades of social advancement on race, sexuality and reproductive rights.
In many cases, the state laws conservatives are pushing are incredibly unpopular or viciously cruel, or both, but conservatives don’t seem to care. For instance, as the Los Angeles Times notes, for years antiabortion legislators included exceptions for rape and incest in proposed laws making abortions illegal or increasingly hard to obtain. But today they’ve given up the charade and are writing bills that would outlaw nearly all abortions, no matter the circumstance.
Meanwhile, their crusade against transgender children has quickly moved from forbidding them from using the right bathroom to banning them from school sports to imprisoning parents who provide supportive, gender-affirming care such as puberty blockers.
What does this have to do with the personal and the political? It’s why conservatives are driven to pass these laws, and why liberal resistance to them is often marked by a kind of helplessness.
Both liberals and conservatives understand that in the long-term picture, liberals are winning the culture war. On most cultural issues — sexuality, gender identity, equality, parenting — their mores and beliefs are becoming more prevalent and more accepted.
But the two sides react to those trends in profoundly different ways. Liberals are more likely to experience complacency that disconnects the personal and the political. I believe in gay rights, a liberal might say, but I don’t have to do anything about it. Marriage equality is the law of the land now, and there are gay characters all over television. Sure, there’s lots of homophobia still around, but the problem will pretty much take care of itself, especially when you consider how open-minded and inclusive my kids and their friends are.
Conservatives, on the other hand, see those same developments as an emergency, one that reinforces the connections they make between the personal and the political. Their view of culture is organized around threat, the idea that they are surrounded and oppressed by forces actively trying to destroy their way of life and everything they believe in.
Once you’ve accepted that view, no societal development is inconsequential and no controversy is overblown. A department store sign reading “Happy Holidays” or a same-sex couple in an ad for dish soap isn’t just a minor source of irritation, it’s a terrifying assault that portends personal catastrophe. Politically, that fear is incredibly powerful.
Liberals will sometimes look at conservative anger and say, “Why do you care? How does it harm you if in the next county there’s a trans girl on her middle school softball team?”
That came up recently in Utah, when Republican Gov. Spencer Cox vetoed a bill targeting transgender children and sports, and noted in a letter that only four trans kids in the entire state play school sports. These four kids, he wrote, just want to “feel like they are a pa …of something... Rarely has so much fear and anger been directed at so few.”
But the reason the GOP state legislature overrode Cox’s veto is that conservatives feel each of those four trans kids’ very existence as an assault on them, one that demands a political response.
Or think of how Democrats struggle to convince their constituents that determining the future of the Supreme Court is a reason to organize and mobilize and vote, yet it never seems to work. Conservatives, on the other hand, don’t need to be told twice. The result: After decades of work and preparation, they have the conservative supermajority they wanted, and the consequences have already been profound.
Perhaps if the court overturns Roe v. Wade later this year, Democrats will be so enraged that they’ll flock to the polls in response. But don’t be surprised if instead of an outpouring of anger and mobilization, that decision is met with a brief moment of despair followed by paralyzed resignation, at least when it comes to the broad mass of Democratic voters.
This disparity in feelings about the personal and the political is part of what makes Republicans so much bolder on policy, even when they know they’re taking an unpopular position. They’re often willing to endure a few days of negative press coverage or some cable news outrage, because they know that in the end, liberals seldom stay mad for long.
Conservatives do, because they feel in a deep and visceral way that the personal is political. If liberals want to build their own backlash to the horrific wave of right-wing legislation sweeping the country, they’ll have to rediscover that connection.